Genetically identical to Zinfandel, Primitivo is a full-bodied Italian red wine variety that is not so well-known outside of Italy. Identical to a Croatian varietal first known as Crljenak Kaštelanski, Primitivo grapes and the wines made from them can be found in vineyards from California and elsewhere in the United States to southern Italy and beyond.
This is not the sweet white Zinfandel that you may see on supermarket shelves in boxes. Expect a bold wine style with characteristics of red fruit, old-world earthiness, and a high alcohol kick. Although finding a bottle can be difficult, they are rarely very expensive.
Even though it’s not as popular of a varietal as Cabernet or Pinot Noir, spend some time seeking out Primitivo and you may like what you find.
Zinfandel is typically opaque and presents as a deep or brilliant ruby often tinged with violet.
The fruit notes will be impacted by the temperature of the growing conditions. Warmer areas will feature aromas of blackberry, pepper, and other spices, while cooler conditions will induce raspberry and other red fruit flavors.
Primitivo, whether from Italy or California, can lean to the alcohol-rich side, sometimes over 15% alcohol by volume. A skillful winemaker will create balance in these “hot” wines by making sure tannins and other components are in harmony with the rest of the profile.
In Italy, Apulia (the heel of the boot of the Italian peninsula) is the main region where the grapes are grown. Vineyards predominate the area around the city of Manduria, where the official Primitivo di Manduria DOC is centered. The Gioia del Colle DOC is another hotspot for growth.
Primitivo clone Crljenak Kaštelanski is the most popular and revered of indigenous Croatian grapes. Viticulture dating back thousands of years, brought these grapes from the Caucasus west into the Mediterranean.
The grape came to American vineyards as Zinfandel. It is most prolific in the central valley of California. It has an interesting history of being imported in the 19th century and was subsequently “lost” during prohibition when many vines were torn up in order to grow grapes better suited to the still-legal home winemaking trade. What was left after prohibition was treasured “old vines” that produced quality grapes.
The name Primitivo refers to the early ripening behavior of the grapes. They are relatively thin-skinned and can be susceptible to rot in damp conditions.
These grapes grow in large oblong bunches. Grapes are packed tightly within the bunch but tend to ripen unevenly with some shriveling to raisins while neighbors remain green.
DNA analysis conducted in the past several decades concluded that Zinfandel, Primitivo, and Crljenak Kaštelanski are genetically identical. That doesn’t mean that these three wines will taste the same. The influence of terroir and climate and the predominant winemaking styles produce profound differences in the end-product. New world wines tend to be juicy and fruit-forward, while old world styles will have a heartier structure and be less sweet.
True to its name, Primitivo is harvested early, usually beginning in August. It is occasionally harvested late to make a sweeter dessert wine. This is covered under the Manduria DOC as Dolce Naturale.
Due to the grape’s uneven ripening characteristics, winemakers have two choices when deciding how to process them. They can either pick through the bunches to select ripe grapes and discard undesirable specimens or they can process the bunches whole. The selective process leads to a higher quality and more expensive product.
It can be produced as a varietal (100% Primitivo) or blended with other grapes to impart different characteristics of flavor, color, or body.
One can’t-miss option is to serve it with a medium-rare steak and call it a day. A good rule-of-thumb for thinking about food pairings is the more full-bodied the character of the wine, the more robust dishes it should be paired with. For Primitivo, this means that its medium-bodied style compliment grilled sausages or hamburgers phenomenally well. Heavyweight bottles made from old vines are stellar with roast beef or lamb and the like.
Try it Out
True Italian Primitivo can be hard to find. Don’t be afraid to grab a Lodi Zinfandel if that’s what’s available to you. However, wines from Italy have an old-world style that is worth seeking out.
2015 and 2016 were good years across the board for Italian wines. However, you need not pay too close attention to vintages for this style as quality vineyards should produce a consistent product
Gianfranco Fino “Es” Primitivo di Manduria 2018: Here, rich, concentrated red fruit is joined with spices — cranberries, cherries, currants, and even strawberry jam. You’ll be greeted by a slow build with tightly woven tannins and a long luxurious finish. Usually available for $65 a bottle.
San Marzano 60 Sessantanni Old Vines Primitivo di Manduria 2017: This is one of the principal examples of Manduria wine. Flavors include fig, plum, and raisins, along with black and blue fruit. You can find it for about $40.
Cantine due Palme Pillastro Primitivo Puglia 2019: Complex yet smooth, you’ll be met by the typical flavors of dark fruit and earthy vanilla. A true bargain at about $12. Get a case!
Fatalone Riserva Primitivo Gioia del Colle 2017–This comes from a vineyard slightly north and inland of Manduria. This is a dry, full-bodied wine with subdued fruit. Tobacco and leather notes predominate here. It retails for around $25.
Steer away from wide shallow glasses to enjoy Primitivo. A taller glass allows more space between the surface of the wine and the taster’s nose and lets some of the ethanol vapors to dissipate. This allows for better appreciation of the bouquet notes without the alcohol burn.
Sometimes it’s fun to explore the less popular option. Primitivo is a wine that can broaden your horizons, allowing you to have great fun sampling and learning about a red wine that makes a big splash.